APRICA, Italy (VN) — One of the unwritten rules of cycling is not to attack when the leader’s jersey is down. If there’s blood in the water, anything goes, but if it’s a puncture or a crash, the honor code says to sit up and give them a chance to catch back on.
That didn’t happen in Tuesday’s emotional 16th stage across the Alps that unfolded with trademark Giro d’Italia polemics. Coming down the cat. 3 Aprica descent, about 70km from the finish, with the spirit-busting Mortirolo looming up the road, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Contador punctured on a tight hairpin. Astana did not wait. Neither did Katusha. Both teams poured it on. Contador knew he was against the ropes.
“When I saw that Katusha and Astana were working at the front, I knew it was going to be a complicated situation,” Contador said. “I knew I had to ride up the Mortirolo at my own pace, make it as if it were a time trial, and that I couldn’t afford to lose my nerves at any moment.”
Katusha and Astana hit the base of the twisting Mortirolo nearly one minute ahead of Contador. Tinkoff-Saxo paced its pink jersey to the base of the Giro’s hardest climb, but he was isolated. The entire Giro hung in the balance. One more misstep, and Contador’s pink jersey could have slipped away.
Instead, Contador countered with what could be a knockout punch. Riding with sangfroid, Contador roared up the Mortirolo, slowly reeling in one rider after another. Contador poured everything into the pedals, eventually blowing past Fabio Aru (Astana), linking up with Mikel Landa (Astana) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo). To add insult to injury, Landa dropped Aru, followed Contador, then attacked to win the stage, bouncing into second place ahead of a blown Aru.
“When I saw that Astana were organized up the road, I knew that I would be starting the Mortirolo with a deficit,” Contador said. “It wasn’t so much the time differences, but the fact that I started the final climb after going full gas on the previous 10km from the base of the Aprica. Our heartbeats were hitting 180bpm. I knew I couldn’t afford one error, and I was determined to take on the challenge.”
Did Katusha and Astana blatantly attack Contador when they saw that he had a puncture? At what point does the argument that the “race is on” come into play? That question fueled the post-stage debate around the team buses parked at the Aprica summit.
Katusha sport director Dmitri Konyshev ordered his troops to pull, because the team is trying to push Yuri Trofimov, now fifth at 8:27 back, closer to the podium, but he insisted he did not realize Contador had punctured. Astana also pulled, and Landa admitted they were out to make it difficult for Contador.
“We went hard on the flats before Contador to make it hard for him, so that he might be a little more tired when he caught us,” Landa said. “We saw that Contador had a problem, and we tried to take advantage of it. I believe that we caused him some pain to catch us. Katusha broke up the group and went full gas, and we collaborated with them.”
Contador refused to enter into the tit-for-tat polemic that typically accompanies these dicey moments. Contador confirmed it was a puncture of his rear tire, not a crash, which forced his delay. He quickly swapped out rear wheels with Ivan Basso, who also had 34×30 gearing, and Tinkoff-Saxo took up the chase. By the time Contador hit the base of the Mortirolo, about 10km from the base of the Aprica, he was isolated.
“I knew in that situation, that was what I was probably going to face. I will not enter into the debate of if it’s the correct thing to do or not,” Contador said. “My team was extraordinary today. When we hit the base of the Mortirolo, we were pumping out an incredible number of watts. We’ve taken control of this race since the very start, and sometimes people forget that. I give each and every one of them a ‘10’ today. I have this jersey today thanks to them.”
Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Lars Michaelsen also questioned the opposing teams’ tactics, hinting that their only chance was to try to take out Contador when he was down.
“I don’t think it’s honorable toward the leader’s jersey [to attack] when he has a problem. If they want to fight him, they should fight him in a sporting way, not like this,” Michaelsen said. “On the flat part of nine kilometers [before Mortirolo], everybody could see they went full, full, full … which would not be normal.”
Despite the collective effort against Contador, he came out of the stage with an even stronger grip on the pink jersey. Astana got another stage win with Landa, but Aru lost more than two minutes to Contador. He now leads Landa by 4:02, with Aru third at 4:52 back.
When asked if he would have attacked Aru in a similar situation, Contador didn’t bite, only adding, “I doubt Aru is very happy right now.”